How to plan a trip around the South Island

How to plan an NZ road trip around the South Island

I’m totally an expert after a 2-week campervan road trip around the South Island, right?

Here’s how we planned our South Island road trip, and what it’s like to be travelling inside, well, your house.

PLANNING

Stalk one-way campervan relocation sites.

A free campervan rental! What could be better? Some even throw in free fuel, free insurance or a free island ferry journey.

Wrong.

Eventually scrap that idea. Relocations come up on very short notice (hard to play along with when you have two full-time workers), only go for about 3-4 days (not enough time to see or do anything particularly when one entire day will be spent driving up the North Island alone) and run from Christchurch to Auckland (coupled with the time limit, this means you can’t see any of the good stuff in the south). If you’re going to be stuck paying last-minute airfare prices to fly down to Christchurch to pick up your campervan, it better be worth it.

Stalk campervan rental websites and comparison websites.

Nearly pass out at the daylight robbery rates.

Argue with partner about when to go. Weather will be infinitely better in summer and roads safer, but the costs are astronomical and that means no skiing in Queenstown on the trip. He’s angling for winter – after all the South Island is all about snow. We settled on spring, right on the tail end – in time to catch the end of snow season, avoid the school holidays, be away on his birthday and still take advantage of off-peak prices.

I feared the cold, to say nothing of bad weather (but one thing I didn’t consider is that I’d be much more likely to get sick in winter – in fact I caught the flu the week before we left). But it was glorious. We had better weather during those whole two weeks than I swear we’ve had in Auckland for the last two years. This happens to be the rainy season in the Milford sound, but apart from a slight drizzle when we first arrived, our time there was all we could have asked for – it was so bright I wore my sunglasses the entire Saturday from when I woke up through to the drive back out.

There were only two miserable days on the west coast, true to its reputation. To be fair, they were pretty shit. Cooped up in your damp camper, with wet gear everywhere that has no chance of drying, was ever so slightly unpleasant. Once the sun finally came out, the next time we came back into the camper after being outside, we both choked on the thick, wet, smelly air, and threw every door and window open to freshen it up.

In regard to temperature, it wasn’t really all that cold – not nearly anywhere what I expected. The camper was warmer than our house, which may as well be made of paper, and was certainly more insulated and weathertight…

I imagine the weather can be dicey when it turns, but I’d definitely recommend going in shoulder season.   We must have seen a couple hundred campers on the roads and in holiday parks just during our journey, so I can’t imagine the crush of the summer crowds.

Book a campervan.

Using campervanhiresalefinder.co.nz, we chose an Apollo 2-berth with shower and toilet, a 2.4l litre turbo diesel manual transmission (T’s choice). It was surprisingly grunty. While we had our fair share of overtakers, we passed many other campers, trucks and even some cars. Seriously. And the seats are unbelievably comfortable; you can drive all day and not wind up with a sore ass or back.

It’s much cheaper to book at the last minute, especially in winter, I think (and as for summer I imagine you’d need to get in early if you want to secure a vehicle; I’m not sure what the optimal time to book is). However, T and I both had to arrange our leave from work in advance and I also didn’t want to be at the mercy of last minute flight bookings, which can cost a fortune.

We opted to pick up and return our campervan in Christchurch, which was cheaper than Queenstown. We could have rented one in Auckland but that would mean we’d have to drive down the whole country – it takes a day just to get to Wellington and the fares crossing the Cook Strait with a vehicle are outrageous.

After scouring both Webjet and Mix and Match, I found the best deal on flights there and back (Air NZ), and on insurance (1cover) at comparetravelinsurance.co.nz.

Make sure your credit card can withstand the weight of the bond you’ll need to pay when you pick up your campervan (in the thousands). I increased mine online, and found ASB has a handy tool right there in Fastnet with a slider showing your pre-approved limit. Score! I thought. No messing around on the phone. I’d originally thought I might double my limit to $6k before thinking that might be a bit much – $5k might be more reasonable. But my approved amount was, lo and behold, $6k, so I ran with it. All done, instantly and painlessly.

Outline your must-dos and your like-to-dos.

I was pretty flexible, with most of my itinerary in the latter category. I kept an eye on Bookme for South Island tourism deals (it’s a bit like a daily deal site specifically for that sector) and picked up a Milford cruise for stupidly cheap, $22. So cheap in fact that I figured if we didn’t make it there by that date, I didn’t mind eating the cost. And if we did, then we’d just have to book the second person’s spot when we got there (the deal was limited to one). We didn’t end up getting there on the day, and paid full price for a combo deal that included time on the water in kayaks.

One thing I absolutely wanted to do was ski. But seriously, the amount of information and options available is dizzying. There’s Coronet Peak and Remarkables. Cardrona and Treble Cone are not far away. (Or we could even hit the snow in Canterbury…) There’s Mypass and Onepass and who knows what else. In the end I basically threw in the towel. “Bugger it, let’s wing it.” And we did. And it was totally fine.

Research some places to stay beforehand.

You can pick up free booklets outlining accommodation options at visitor information centres, but it’s probably a good idea to do a little preparation in advance as well.

Rankers is invaluable as a resource for finding safe places to free camp. In the more built up areas, no camping signs are everywhere. Out in the country, you won’t just want to stop on the side of the motorway or outside the fence of someone’s farm. Before leaving, I made a list of both paid holiday parks where we could use the facilities (try nzcampsites.co.nz, holidayparks.co.nz, nzcamping.co.nz), and free sites from Rankers, in roughly the order we might need them as we drove around the country. And of course, there were a few nights where we simply found a handy spot and made it ours for the night, which is the beauty of campervanning it.

Holiday parks are expensive – you’re looking at about $40 a night for a powered camper site – but they do provide a place for you to empty your waste, fill up on water and recharge your power. The Department of Conservation has cheap campsites all over, but they generally don’t have much in the way of facilities. (We did see a large sign on the way out of Hokitika advertising $20 camper sites – so you may find some off-the-radar bargains.)

We found ourselves rising with the sun and going to sleep early – which is hard to avoid when you’re so out in the open – just like nature intended.

Bring a GPS, guidebook, and also, pick up free maps that will be available for the taking along the way.

Do not rely solely on your guidebook, however. (Obvious.) From research stage to on-sale stage a lot can change. I actually bought mine on deep discount a year or two ago in anticipation of eventually making this trip, so it was well out-of-date, really. I mean, the Catlins and the Southern Alps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but prices change and businesses change or close, as we found out in Greymouth. I’d marked down to visit the Railway Hotel for a down-home dinner (apparently they did a standout BBQ where $5 got you sausages and all-you-can-eat salad, with steak add-ons available) but when we walked in, the pub food was moved into a separate fancy-pants restaurant. Sigh.

I also got a copy of the Great Kiwi Motorhome Guide from the library before we left and photocopied some of the pages. You may find the information on things like how to empty the wastewater and toilet cassette handy later on when you’re staring all the gear in the face.

Other things to bring on your campervan trip…

Car charger for your phones – we alternated between recharging our phones and having the GPS plugged in. It all worked out well

Playing cards – you’ll need to entertain yourself in the evenings, and even if your camper has a TV, odds are you won’t get reception. I also loaded up my iPad with ebooks (yes, I gave it a try, at last) but didn’t end up using it much as I didn’t want to drain it too much

Jandals/slip on shoes – never go amiss

ON THE ROAD

Shop for food frequently.

The campervan’s tiny fridge didn’t hold a whole lot, so we were shopping every couple of days. Down south I saw lemons for 80c a kg, via a sign on the side of the road. And we picked up a huge box of grapes in Invercargill for only $2 (Thursday night is apparently sweet deal night at Pak n Save). But in Queenstown we saw tomatoes going for $20 a kg (even in Auckland they never reach those prices at the height of winter, and tomatoes were back to $7 a kg when we got back). Beef was also more expensive than chicken or lamb, for some reason.

And prepare to pay for water – drinking straight from the campervan tap may not be the best idea. After all, you’re literally filling your tank through what’s more or a less a garden hose, though I definitely had more than a few swigs through our kitchen tap toward the end of the trip and didn’t feel any ill effecs. We went through a ton of 2 and 4 litre bottles from the supermarket, and I once filled up my bottle at Milford Lodge (glacier water is pure as it gets, right?).

Fill up your tank strategically.

Fuel was also pricier. Somewhere in the centre of the South Island between Greymouth and Kaikoura, we passed a petrol station where the price boards for petrol and diesel read, respectively, ARM and LEG.

It’s always cheaper in the larger centres, and can vary between stations – in Greymouth alone we saw a range of about 3c difference. And opt on the side of safety – you don’t want to risk running empty in the middle of nowhere.

Aside from that, go with the flow and have fun!




There’s a nice culture around campervans. A lot of people wave from their oncoming campers as you drive past one another.

Yet you’re self-contained, so that privacy is lovely to have. We really only interacted with two Hawaiian women, who were on our cruise and kayak tour in Milford Sound (both work on cruise ships, one as an engineer and one as party planner, and were also driving around in a camper like us) and three young Aussie guys in Kaikoura (who were amazing enough to immediately offer to cover our costs when it came time to pay the charter skipper and we didn’t have cash on us. Their website had Visa plastered all over it, in my defence! We then drove straight to an ATM in order to reimburse them. Trust between travellers…).

I imagine you could make a pretty sweet life for yourself with a camper. I could definitely have done it for a lot longer. (I may have enjoyed the wearing of the same clothes for three days in a row/the non brushing of the hair a little too much, and taken it too far.) There are some free dump stations around (and I don’t mean rubbish, though that’s pretty easy to dispose of) and most, or all, also have free potable water taps.

That really only leaves you with electricity to worry about, and we went up to four or even five days once without plugging into a power point to charge up. You only need to power the fridge (though if you want to use the microwave or any power points, you do need to be plugged in at a powered site at a park or, I don’t know, somebody’s house using a very long extension lead).

It definitely took a little while to get used to the toilet. In all honestly, I didn’t eat much while away – I wasn’t working out body or brain – and was probably dehydrated to boot (except for in Southland, where I was gulping water every few minutes. SUCH DRY AIR). I normally have what’s politely referred to as a ‘healthy appetite’ so I was probably on my equivalent of a starvation level diet. Eventually, though, you get used to excreting into a tank that lies below the camper, and to emptying it every few days (T shouldered that burden unflinchingly). As for the shower, I only used it once. It’s easiest to sit on the loo while showering – that’s how cramped the cubicle is – and the pressure is ridiculously low. All my other showers were taken in the facilities of holiday parks.

A breakdown of our NZ South Island road trip costs

What you really want to know: The cost of a campervan trip around the South Island of New Zealand!

Our campervan cost less than $60 a day (not much more than a rental car would’ve!) However after hearing more info when we arrived to pick it up, we paid for the Value Pack, which was about $30 a day on top of that. Sounds like a rip off, right?

It was the right decision for us. Here’s why.

  • We needed to carry snow chains (luckily we didn’t end up needing the, but we well could’ve). Those would’ve been $50.
  • They also would have nickel and dimed us when we returned it, anyway with diesel road taxes, registration costs, etc. That would’ve probably been another $50 or more.
  • And as it turned out, the driver needs to be the person whose name is on the booking, and any additional driver incurs a charge. I only have a restricted licence, and it’s for automatic cars. T was always going to be the sole driver. I’m not sure what the charge is for that, but I think it’s also at least $50.
  • But most importantly, which I didn’t extract from the original fine print, is just how limited the insurance is. If anything, anything at all happens, you are liable upfront. Even if it’s not your fault. Even if it’s an Act of God (you’re on the hook for those, too, and on the off chance another big Canterbury quake struck…).  And each incident is charged separately. So the $2700 bond/excess would be doubled if there were two instances of damage, and so forth  – and my travel insurance only extended to $5000. Honestly, I was quite rattled, so paying the extra money to reduce our liability to zero for any and all incidents was worth it for peace of mind.  Some random marks did appear on our hood toward the end of the trip, but luckily they scratched off with a little effort – I think they were branch scrapes.

Anyway, to the numbers!

I set a budget of $3000, but didn’t end up tracking our spending closely – or at all, to be quite frank. Once you add in our flights the total came to: $3649.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown…

cost to campervan around the south island

Transport – flights, campervan and fuel – made up half of that. But that also included accommodation, seeing as we were living out of the camper (we stayed at three paid holiday parks which cost us a little over $100). Food and groceries cost a little more than if we’d been at home (about 10% of the total) and the few activities we did (Milford cruise/Queenstown skiing and snowboarding respectively/Wanaka museum and activities) added up quickly to roughly 25%.

Any questions?

10 thoughts on “How to plan a trip around the South Island

  • Reply Sense October 12, 2012 at 11:17

    thanks for the breakdown! These kinds of posts are always so helpful. I was interested in reading it even though I have already done all of my South Island-ing.

    Your cost is roughly in line with mine–slightly lower, in fact. I paid ~$2K to rental car it around with one other person for two weeks, staying in twin rooms in hostels, paid tent camping and campavanning, and DoC campsites. We did pricey things like the glacier heli-hike, though, and didn’t get to Milford Sound (on that trip…I’ve been there 4-5 times now and can safely say I never plan to go back, even though it’s definitely worth the drive at least twice.).

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  • Reply Janine October 18, 2012 at 07:48

    That is a really cool way of breaking it down. I usually just use a boring pie chart! Looks like you had a good trip!

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  • Reply Izy Berry January 14, 2014 at 17:37

    Part of the reason I was OK with settling back in Christchurch for a while was the prospect of doing lots of road trips. Been back almost a year (ouch) and I’ve only done 3. I need to up my game!

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